Thursday, July 17, 2014

Throwback Thursday: Comeliness

For this week’s throwback I thought we would examine a now defunct character stat known as comeliness. It was just one of many new concepts released in the 1985 Unearthed Arcana by TSR. The former alone could be the subject of constant throwback material. Comeliness was the seventh D&D primary stat which fizzled away in later editions of Dungeons & Dragons.

Comeliness reflects physical attractiveness, social grace, and personal beauty of the character. It is used to determine initial reactions to the character and characters with a high comeliness may affect the wills and actions of others. While charisma deals specifically with leadership and interactions between characters, comeliness deals with attractiveness and first impressions.

This was an interesting concept and it came with that new car smell so many gamers tried it. Overall in the end I think most groups decided it served no real mechanical purpose in the game. It inherently was very subjective as an attribute since beauty is ultimately in the eye of the beholder. For example I may be an elven wizard with 18 comeliness and according to the Unearthed Arcana the beauty of the character will cause heads to turn and hearts to race.

But to half-orcs or even a dwarf maybe the ugliness of the character will cause stomachs to turn and hearts to stop? Obviously every culture or species has its own standards of beauty and a way to measure them. I think this is where comeliness really fell short in terms of its game use. To be fair the tables in Unearthed Arcana did come with the following caveat:

Comeliness will have the following effects on creatures of human sort. (This category includes, but is

not necessarily limited to, humans, demi-humans, humanoids. giant-class, and bipedal creatures of human-like form and motivation.)

I have used the comeliness tables as a reference tool for monsters that have Charm and Fascinate powers. Since they are using magic every race sees whatever they find the most attractive in that instance. I prefer to let players decide if their character is model material or battle scarred and ugly (which may be attractive to some). I then make notes and use it during role playing interactions with NPCs they encounter.

According to statistics released by the Society of Plastic Wizards, 14.6 million cosmetic plastic surgery procedures, including both minimally-invasive and surgical, were performed in the United States in 2012. People are still looking into that magic mirror and really concerned about their comeliness score.

Has comeliness survived your campaign worlds or like others have you brushed it under the rug? In a world so obsessed with outward appearance I could see vanity leaking back into the tabletop environment. Rumor has it there is a dwarven wizard offering Flesh to Stone chiseling with a guaranteed reversal for a few thousand gold in a city near you!

“Mirror Mirror on the Wall, Who is the Fairest of Them All?”

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Lost Mine of Phandelver: Cragmaw Hideout

This past weekend I ran part 1 of the Lost Mine of Phandelver with three avid 5E play testers and three veteran returning players. We used the pre-made characters provided with the starter set and my wife rolled up her own character. Five of the players were physically present and one Skyped in from out of state. After they all selected characters I spent about ten minutes explaining some of the rule changes and then we jumped right in.

WARNING: Spoilers past this point!

Just for background one of the things I immediately liked about the Lost Mine of Phandelver adventure booklet was how easy it was to read. Since it was filled with helpful tips to assist a new DM I really just skimmed it a few hours before game time. Admittedly, I did not follow the adventure and changed things as I saw fit based on player interaction.

Hired by a dwarf in Neverwinter to bring a wagon of supplies to Phandelver the players set off. Eventually they happen about a grisly scene on the road consisting of black feather laden horse corpses. At this point the curious halfling rogue in our group went up for a looksee. Unfortunately she suffered the ambush of the goblins hiding in the thicket. Luckily one of the fighters with a longbow had been perched on top of the wagon the entire trip. Some return fire felled one goblin and provided some suppression for movement. Eventually hide and seek ensued in the thick underbrush ending in a melee.

I enjoyed the first encounter and I think it was well thought out to introduce new players to some important concepts. Sure the old vets in my group immediately realized they were being funneled into an ambush. That being said, new players need to learn that an opponent with a ranged weapon using cover and concealment is devastating. I think this encounter will be an educational experience for some groups!

Afterward the stalwart adventurers hobbled the oxen drawn wagon inside a thicket clearing and followed the goblin trail. Passive perception saved them from some nasty goblin traps along the way. The traps are another good primer for new players as they will learn that danger can take many forms. Just because it looks like a safe trail to follow does not mean there is not a big pit trap waiting to swallow you up.

Finally the group located a large cave which a shallow stream flowed into. This was the Cragmaw Hideout where the goblins and their bugbear boss were holed up. Without giving too much more away about the actual interior I will say there is a few surprises which I thought were fun. I think part 1 was a good mix of exploration and combat with part 2 potentially involving lots of investigation and roleplaying opportunities.

Overall the Lost Mine of Phandelver is a solid product to teach new players the game and also entertain veteran players alike. Sometimes reaffirming those old school values of combat, exploration and role-playing is even good for the grognards. 

Here are some of my favorite comments from the game session:

“Clerics get a cantrip that does d8? Wow this is awesome!”
“This is how a longbow is supposed to feel”
“Sneaking up on the bugbear by yourself…probably not a good idea”
“I love how fast the combat is going. I did not even finish pouring a beer and it’s my turn again”
“Advantage/Disadvantage is a great mechanic”

Thursday, July 10, 2014

Throwback Thursday: Gygax Magazine Issue 4

I just received my copy of Gygax magazine issue 4 in the mail. Every time I open one of these issues it takes me right back to the early 1980s. From the smell of the freshly printed paper, the design layout and the content this is a nostalgic homage to the original Dragon magazine. 

I work in the information technology world for a living and I’m a big technology guru. That being said, I still really enjoy hard copy magazines and books. There is just something tactile and pleasing about leafing through real pages you just don’t get with a PDF. Also RPG books and magazines just lying around are probably one of the best gateways for new players. Curiosity because of a fantastic cover often will draw just about anyone in for at least a cursory once over.

And that is what brings us to this Throwback Thursday and Gygax magazine issue 4. The cover is painted by the incredibly talented Den Beauvais. His work has graced countless RPG products over the past decades. A quick visit to his website will really open your eyes just to how voluminous his works have been.

There is an interesting backstory to the cover of Gygax magazine issue 4. It actually represents the ongoing saga of a magical chess game being played out for a very long time. It all started with Dragon magazine issues 83, 86, 89 and 118. 

Dragon issue 86 still resonates with me the most in terms of cover art in the chess series. It was 1984 and I had been playing Dungeons & Dragons for about one year at that point. I remember several attempts at trying to draw the knight scene I loved it so much. I wish I still had them to share with you all now.

Gygax magazine has not disappointed me yet and the cover of issue 4 is a wonderful follow-up in the series. For the uninitiated in chess the queen is the most powerful piece, able to move any number of squares vertically, horizontally, or diagonally.

Early queen attacks are rare in high level chess, and a queen exchange often marks the beginning of the endgame for more advanced players. With that in mind this latest work really keeps that theme as a foundation as the fifth painting in the series.      

For those interested in Gygax magazine I encourage you to support the publication. A one year subscription (Issues 5, 6, 7, 8) runs $35.00 and you receive both hard copy and PDF. Just the name of the magazine alone should inspire grognards and greenhorns alike!

Monday, July 7, 2014

Dungeons & Dragons: Thaumaturgy

Over the past week I have been absorbing the new Dungeons and Dragons starter and basic rules. I’m very pleased with the new “green box” and it will find a well-deserved spot on my game shelf. I printed the entire free basic PDF and assembled a binder for ease of use. While flipping through it this past weekend one new cantrip really resonated with me.

Thaumaturgy is basically prestidigitation for clerics which I think is just awesome. One of the big design elements of 5th edition was to harken back to the old ways of playing. And by that I mean less roll playing and more role playing. Thaumaturgy is a great tool to assist with this as it gives our divine casters a bag of minor magic tricks.

The etymology of the word thaumaturgy is from Greek thaumatourgia, or “wonder-working”. It was first anglicized in John Dee's book Mathematical Praeface to Euclid's Elements (1570). He mentions an "art mathematical" called "thaumaturgy... which giveth certain order to make strange works, of the sense to be perceived and of men greatly to be wondered at."

Medieval Europe is filled with stories of Saints and their healing miracles or portents of things to come. Interestingly the Greeks really developed the word thaumatourgia to label these saints and document their wonders. In a low magic campaign or just an area remote of magic thaumaturgy opens all sorts of story doors for any dungeon master.

I can just imagine an unscrupulous or evil cleric using thaumaturgy to strike fear into an entire village and controlling it. These acts of the “gods” would be unlimited and the common folk would be wary and frightened by them.

The role playing opportunities for players with a cleric character are really endless now. And just like prestidigitation dungeon masters should encourage their players to be inventive. Don’t be glued to the bullet list of manifestations below as they are but mere suggestions and examples.

Transmutation cantrip
Casting Time: 1 action
Range: 30 feet
Components: V
Duration: Up to 1 minute

You manifest a minor wonder, a sign of supernatural power, within range. You create one of the following magical effects within range:

•   Your voice booms up to three times as loud as normal for 1 minute.
•   You cause flames to flicker, brighten, dim, or change color for 1 minute.
•   You cause harmless tremors in the ground for 1 minute.
•   You create an instantaneous sound that originates from a point of your choice within range,
such as a rumble of thunder, the cry of a raven, or ominous whispers.
•   You instantaneously cause an unlocked door or window to fly open or slam shut.
•   You alter the appearance of your eyes for 1 minute.

If you cast this spell multiple times, you can have up to three of its 1-minute effects active at a time, and you can dismiss such an effect as an action.

Gandalf using Thaumaturgy?